Jewish Wisdom

Biblical Babes: Miriam and Deborah

We encounter two thrilling women in the Torah portion B’shalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16), one of the texts we read during Shvat. Meet Miriam and Deborah: independent thinkers, inspiring leaders, and enthusiastic singers.

The Shabbat we read their stories has a special name, Shabbat Shirah or “Shabbat of Songs.” This Torah portion includes the song that Miriam and the Israelites sang as they crossed the Sea of Reeds, as well as “The Song of Deborah,” who was a famous Judge and prophet in biblical times.

Miriam’s Inspired Song

Miriam was right at the shore as the waters of the Sea of Reeds parted in front of the escaping Israelites. When the way opened, Miriam did something important: she led all the women in song and dance!

The Torah reads, “Miriam the prophetess … took the tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her with tambourines and danced” (Exodus 15:20). That day, Miriam convinced every last Israelite woman to move her body, find her voice, and step into power. What an expression of ecstatic spirituality!

The echoes of Miriam’s teaching show up in today’s early morning dance parties and ecstatic dance communities, but Miriam was an original instigator, urging women to rejoice for life and freedom.

Deborah’s Triumphant Tune

Depicted as sitting beneath a date palm tree, Deborah was a heroine and famous Judge during biblical times — the only female Judge, in fact. Famed for being just and fair, she served as an important teacher for the Israelites.

(Judges like Deborah came to prominence during very difficult times, when people especially needed wise guidance. Twelve Judges, or Shoftim, show up in the Torah, each a leader who emerged to “judge Israel” when the people were no longer living out their morals.)

In one of her best-known moments, Deborah successfully took the Israelites into battle against their neighboring enemies, the Canaanites, and triumphed after killing the enemy’s general. Her story is told in “The Song of Deborah” a victory hymn sung by her and a fellow Judge, Barak, in the Book of Judges. Her song is one of the earliest and most important poems in the Jewish canon.

The name Deborah means “bee,” pointing to her role as a producer of sweet relief for the Israelites, and her position as a dominant, powerful leader.

Fitting Counterpoints

Miriam and Deborah are fitting counterpoints. Deborah was known for her fire and her clarity. Miriam was a bringer of life-giving water. Wherever the Israelites found themselves in the desert, God provided water in the name of Miriam’s good merits. (Appropriately, Miriam’s Well is quite an important symbol for At The Well.)

In honor of these two independent women, let’s pull out our tambourines, start dancing, and raise our voices in the name of justice and truth!

Biblical Babes: Miriam and Deborah

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